The Best Chicken Coop and Accessories of 2023
Sep 30, 2023
We’re currently testing a new coop, the Producer's Pride Sentinel Chicken Coop.
Raising chickens is a joy. Hens lay colorful, delicious eggs, they’re delightful to be around, and they’re very photogenic. I often have a few hens surrounding me while I garden, and my daughter's favorite likes to be picked up for cuddles. But my husband is less charmed. "I’ve spent some of the most disgusting moments of my life in that chicken coop," he once told me. Behind every glossy photo of a fluffy hen in a spotless designer coop, there are gritty realities that usually involve poop and a lot of expenses. Anyone considering a small backyard flock needs to understand the good, the bad, and the smelly before committing.
I spoke to eight experts—including farmers, veterinarians, and the co-owner of the oldest chick hatchery in the United States—and compiled a list of everything you need to get started, from a chicken coop to first aid to the chicks themselves. We have information on the tougher aspects of chicken keeping, too, including diseases, parasites, chick mortality, and rooster mating. There's no one right way to raise chickens, but we have a substantial amount of advice to get you started.
No ready-made coop we’ve found is perfect, but if you don't want to build your own, this customizable model provides a sturdy and well-designed home for your chicks.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $450.
If you’re considering a first-ever backyard flock of chickens, we recommend the Petmate Superior Construction Chicken Coop as a durable, easy-to-construct home for your birds. (If you’ve built IKEA furniture, you can build this.) The Petmate coop comes unfinished, so you can paint or stain it however you’d like—a fun customization not available on most prefab coops—and it's packed with convenient features such as direct access to the nesting boxes for egg gathering, a slide-out panel to assist with cleaning, and a full-size door to the chicken run.
The Petmate coop isn't without its faults, but when we first published this guide in 2021 it was easily the best we found in the under $500 range. The price has since increased to $600, and we’re currently testing a popular less expensive model, the Producer's Pride Sentinel Chicken Coop.
This guide is for total beginners looking to raise a few egg-laying hens in their backyard. We don't cover raising birds for meat in this guide, or breeding, but we do have some advice on roosters if you’re interested. If you’ve raised chickens before and want to start again, or if you’ve already been raising chickens for a few years and want some fresh tips, we have plenty of equipment recommendations and expert suggestions. But we’ve mainly focused on information for people who have never done this before.
Expenses are important to keep in mind. The chicks themselves will be the cheapest thing you purchase; most cost under $10 a chick, and many are much less than that. This guide will give you a realistic sense of how much everything else will cost, from one-time buys such as the chicken coop to ongoing expenses like food, so you can set your budget and figure out how many chickens you can sustain. Raising chickens can be hard work—but worth the effort for all of the fresh eggs and all of the fun (video) of having these adorable, fluffy birds strutting around your yard.
I grew up in a working-class part of New Jersey, not far from New York City, where the closest thing to country fairs is Italian street festivals. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d one day be raising chickens in rural Washington. But that's exactly what happened, and if I can raise chickens, anyone can. I have 13 laying hens and one rooster, representing eight chicken breeds.
In my own chicken journey, I’ve spent weeks of my life researching coops, reading reviews, and navigating pandemic-related shipping and inventory problems (chickens and coops became very popular during the pandemic and demand has continued to grow with the recent spike in egg prices). Our house came with a dilapidated coop that we fixed up in 2019, and it can hold a few dozen chickens. When my daughter decided last summer that she wanted to raise some hens of her own, we needed a second, small coop, so I spent more than a dozen hours researching prefabricated coops with a run—a fenced area for chickens to play in and to stay protected from predators. I looked for coops that could hold up to five or six chickens, had good reviews, looked durable, and came with convenient features such as easy access to the nesting boxes and the ability to get into the coop to clean it. I tried to stay under $500, which is on the low end for good quality in the coop world. For the most part, less expensive models tend to have terrible reviews claiming flimsy construction. There are exceptions, though, and I sought those out. I learned a lot about coop construction, cost, quality, and the pros and cons of different models.
I also spoke to eight experts with experience working with and raising chickens. Their knowledge about coops, health and safety, and chickens themselves helped us shape most of the advice in this guide.
I also spent more than 20 hours on additional research, reading books and online resources to round out the information in this guide.
A pickle packer, a dough whisk, and more farm-life things that can make anyone's daily chores just a little bit easier.
Aside from constant access to fresh eggs, having a few chickens on your property offers a lot of benefits. But you need to familiarize yourself with the downsides of chickens, from the diseases they may carry to the work required to protect them from predators.
First, the good: Chickens are great for insect control in the yard, as author Gail Damerow (whose book, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, is considered by many to be essential for any chicken owner) told me in an email. Their manure also produces fertilizer for gardens (PDF). In addition, Damerow said, raising chickens can be highly educational for kids, as it teaches them about responsibility in a fun way. I’ve experienced this firsthand as my daughter prepares to show hers with 4-H at our county fair. Lastly, Damerow noted the zen-like benefits of having chickens around: "A lot of folks are discovering that just chilling out with the flock is an awesome stress reliever."
But with all those positives, it's important to remember that chickens can carry salmonella. Damerow advised following the CDC's guidelines on handling chickens and eggs safely and paying close attention to any kids hanging around chickens. "Most of the time salmonella does not affect the chicken. It's going to affect your little children, though," said Michelle Hawkins, a veterinarian and professor at University of California Davis's School of Veterinary Medicine. She strongly discourages children under the age of 5 from handling chickens because kids that age put their hands in their mouths, eyes, and noses. Everyone handling the chickens should wash their hands diligently for at least 20 seconds afterward, and wearing gloves is a smart idea. And—both Hawkins and Maurice Pitesky, another vet and professor at UC Davis, emphasized this strongly—be sure to keep the chickens out of your house. "[Chickens] should not be raised in people's homes," Pitesky said. Except when they’re babies.
Raising chickens involves a learning curve, and it's more difficult than with typical pets like cats and dogs. I’ve made all kinds of rookie mistakes, from storing feed bins outside (a bad idea with bears around) to underestimating how long it would take to fix and assemble both of my coops (I’ve had two summers now with my basement office full of birds). We’ve lost chicks and full-grown chickens to injuries and mystery illnesses. I’ve learned more about chick genitals than I ever thought possible, and I’ve figured out how to spot and treat minor wounds and health problems.
And, unlike with cats and dogs, you can't board your chickens or leave them with friends if you go out of town, so you’ll need to make sure someone is caring for them when you’re away, even just overnight. Damerow told me she likes to put eyes on her chickens at least twice a day. "Some people believe they have a setup that allows them to check on their chickens, feed and water, etc., no more than once a week," she said. But things can—and do—go wrong. Aside from the threat of predators, rodents can eat all the feed, and the chickens can dump their waterer over.
I’ve learned more about chick genitals than I ever thought possible.
There are also legal matters to consider. Before you order your birds, check the zoning regulations for your town or county. Local authorities may have rules about the size and yard location of your coop, the number of chickens you can have, or whether you can have chickens at all. (On the other hand, some communities are incentivizing chicken keeping to help reduce food waste.) Consider your neighbors, too. People think roosters are the only noisy chickens, but hens can be chatty and loud, so it's polite to let any folks next door know your plans. I like to bring baked goods when delivering news my neighbors might not like.
You have a number of things to consider before acquiring chicks—namely, when to get them, how many, and where to buy them. Chickens are typically bought young, often only a day old. You can order them online at any time of the year or pick them up at a local feed store, which may have limited seasons for them. Most people tend to purchase them in the spring and early summer, according to Tom Watkins, co-owner and president of Murray McMurray Hatchery.
Getting your birds later in the year offers real benefits, though. Egg production is based on how many hours of light hens get, and spring chicks won't start laying eggs until the fall; just when you can get excited for eggs, the days get shorter, and their production drops. Watkins said people are starting to get chicks between August and October because at that time it's still warm enough to move young pullets (the technical term for a hen that's less than a year old) into the coop before winter, and then they’ll start laying regularly when the weather warms up again in the spring. This is also gentler on a pullet's body, letting the hen ease into egg laying while it keeps growing and gaining the energy to produce an egg a day.
If you’re flexible about when you start your flock, you might also have an easier time getting popular breeds. There are, indeed, trendy chickens, and these sell out almost immediately for spring (with preorders that can start way back in November). But Watkins told me that when calculating how many chicks to presell each fall, his hatchery (and, he thinks, most others) lists a lower number than it hopes to actually have available for each breed to avoid overselling chicks during the preorder season. This means that after preorders ship in the spring, there's a good chance hatcheries will have a few extra of the most popular chicks. Watkins said it's always worth calling if the breed you want is listed as sold out; you might get lucky at the last minute if you wait until the spring frenzy subsides (which, Watkins said, starts in April and tapers off by July).
The minimum number of chickens our experts recommend for a flock is three birds, because chickens are social animals and do better in numbers (our chicken coop pick can hold this many). But both Watkins and Wirecutter senior staff writer Doug Mahoney suggested starting with six to 10 chicks because, statistically, a few of them won't survive, and some of them might be roosters you decide not to keep. This approach will help ensure that you end up with a good number of adult hens. If you’re wondering what a good maximum for chickens is, Damerow told me that "a basic rule of thumb is to have two chickens for every person in the household."
You’ll see hatcheries mention "sexed" chicks, which are those that have been checked for male or female sex organs. Sexing is imperfect because newborn chicks (and their private parts) are so teeny. "At the best of times, we guarantee 90%," Watkins told me of McMurray Hatchery's accuracy. That means for every 10 "hen" chicks, one is probably a rooster. And adult traits don't become obvious for a while, so you could be raising your birds for months, and then one day your Helga starts crowing like a Hugo. Whether to own a rooster has a lot to do with personal preference and local zoning restrictions.
You have three main options for buying chickens: picking them up at a local feed store or farm, having the feed store order them, or getting them directly from a hatchery and having them mailed. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks.
Getting chicks at a feed store or local farm is quick and easy. It's just a matter of driving down and picking them out. You get to see the chicks before bringing them home, so you can make sure they look healthy and alert. There is also a decent chance that someone at the store has chickens and will be available for any last-minute questions or advice. You could think of this as the first step in your relationship with your local feed store, a place you’ll likely start to frequent.
The main downside of getting chicks at a feed store is that the breed options are likely to be very limited. Also, they’re typically available for only a few weeks each year, usually in the spring. To remedy this, many stores offer chick ordering, in which they order specific birds for you and have them delivered to the store, ready for pickup. This arrangement allows for a wider breed selection but is still limited in comparison with the even broader selection online hatcheries offer. Pickup dates are also rigid, so you still don't get a lot of flexibility in the timing.
The third option is to order your chicks from a hatchery for delivery through the mail. You can find a number of reputable hatcheries, but Wirecutter's Doug Mahoney has had good experiences with both Murray McMurray Hatchery and My Pet Chicken. Hatcheries such as these offer a tremendous breed selection and many more options for delivery dates.
Getting chicks through the mail may seem risky at first, but hatcheries work closely with the USPS, which has specific instructions for shipping chicks and a century of experience handling them. The birds come in a cardboard box with holes, and rather than leaving them unattended at your door, the postal service typically keeps them at your local post office and calls you to pick them up immediately. Chicks are usually shipped out during their first day of life, so they can last a couple of days without food or water because they’re still living off the nutrients from the egg. If you’re nervous about delivery in your area, you can try calling or stopping by your local office to let them know a shipment of live birds is on the way. If there is a problem with your chicks, a good hatchery will have a policy to refund or replace them; here's McMurray's policy.
Ideally chicks should come from a hatchery that participates in the USDA National Poultry Improvement Plan, which helps monitor and control poultry diseases. McMurray Hatchery is on the list; if you’re buying from a local store, be sure to ask. Veterinarian Michelle Hawkins also said it's vital to make sure that any store you buy chicks from vaccinates them against Marek's disease, an incurable chicken herpes virus, before they’re a day old.
Each breed has its advantages, and most chicken keepers have an assortment of hens to make their flock more dynamic, as well as to have different-colored eggs (which look great on Instagram). McMurray Hatchery's Tom Watkins and his team recommended the following 10 as the best for new chicken keepers. They’re all docile and great for egg laying, and most of them remain hardy in a variety of climates.
No ready-made coop we’ve found is perfect, but if you don't want to build your own, this customizable model provides a sturdy and well-designed home for your chicks.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $450.
The Petmate Superior Construction Chicken Coop is the best starter coop I’ve found in a dozen hours of research into prefab coops. It can realistically hold up to six chickens, and it offers solid build quality and easy assembly. It comes unfinished, so you can paint or stain it however you’d like, a fun customization not available on most coops. In addition, it has nice features such as direct access to the nesting boxes and a door to get into the run, which is a huge help with cleaning. It's not a perfect coop—we’ve had to add an extra support to ours and the price has increased to $600 from $450 since we first published this guide in 2021— but in addition to my own good experiences with the Petmate, this model consistently gets positive reviews.
The Petmate coop's product description says it is recommended for eight to 10 chickens, but considering its 8-square-foot coop box and 24-square-foot run, I wouldn't keep more than four to six birds in it, and other owners feel the same (video). The disparity between how many chickens a manufacturer claims a coop can hold and how much space experts say a chicken needs, as well as what owners report in regard to their coop purchases, was a problem with every coop I researched. Author Gail Damerow recommends 4 square feet of space per chicken in a coop (not including the run), but many other experts state 2 to 3 square feet per chicken as a common guideline. I think the reality for most people falls somewhere between Damerow's suggestion (which would mean only two chickens in this coop) and what the manufacturer recommends. McMurray Hatchery's Tom Watkins told me most people's coop sizes are probably overkill if the birds have space to move outside of the run. My daughter's five hens are a bit of a tight fit in the Petmate, though one of them is an extra-large breed, and we make sure they get plenty of time to stretch outside in our yard.
The Petmate coop offers solid build quality and is easy to assemble. We put ours together in two hours or so, and the quality of the individual pieces was high, with just a couple of sections that were slightly warped. I’ve assembled several wood rabbit hutches and children's playhouses from kits over the years, and the overall quality on this coop was better than on any of those. If you’ve built IKEA furniture, you can build this.
It's also customizable in a way many other coops aren't. The Petmate comes unfinished, so the maker recommends at least weather-treating it with sealant, but you can also paint or stain it any color you like. There's no doubt this is a time-consuming process (we did ours over the course of three days), but it's fun to have the option to match your house color, to add a splash of fire-engine red to your backyard, or even to go with just a nice honey-colored stain. Once coated, the coop holds up well against the elements. Ours has been fine through almost two years of damp Pacific Northwest weather. The doors swell up a little when it's wet out, but I suspect that has more to do with my rushed sealing job than anything else.
The Petmate coop is convenient to use on a day-to-day basis. It has a 59-inch-tall door into the run, so I can step inside when I need to change the food and water or add litter (soft material, such as hay or pine shavings, that's comfortable under chickens’ feet) to the ground. The coop also has an outside door to the nesting boxes that's easy to open for collecting eggs.
Damerow and veterinarian Michelle Hawkins both told me that chickens need to dust-bathe. If they have access to your yard, they’ll dig holes or find a dry spot of dirt or sand. If they’re confined to a coop or run, you might want to set up a clean, dry spot in a corner so they avoid dirty litter. You can give them a fun sandbox in the yard, or you can build something simple out of wood. I use cheap under-the-bed storage bins inside the run. You can find various suggestions online for what to fill it with; I use a mix of garden soil, playground sand, and these fancy, good-smelling chicken nesting herbs.
The Petmate coop is partitioned for three nesting boxes, but I found its elevated plywood floor flimsy, so we nailed a 2-by-1-inch strip of wood underneath to reinforce it and prevent the plywood from buckling under the weight of many eggs (or hens). That addition has kept the floor stable for nearly a year, but I can see it's starting to sag, so we may need to add more support this summer. The coop has a roost bar in the run, which our hens use daily, but inside the coop box there were two roost bars at floor level that our chickens didn't like. They prefer to be elevated when they sleep, so we removed those bars and added a long swinging roost bar, constructed much like this chicken swing (video) but with a dowel instead of a branch.
Like many prefab coops I’ve seen, the Petmate has a slide-out tray for cleaning under the coop's roost bars, which tends to be the messiest spot in the coop, but in my experience the tray gets so caked and coated in chicken droppings after a couple of months, even with regular cleanings, that it becomes immovable without a lot of scraping; I think this would be true of any coop tray. A small door where you can reach in to clean is handier, and the Petmate has one, as well as another door with direct access to the nesting boxes. This additional, wider hatch makes gathering eggs and cleaning the coop much easier.
As mentioned, some of our experts recommended starting a flock with six to 10 chicks, and I know the size of this coop seems to contradict that advice. But remember, our experts’ advice assumes that some of those chicks won't survive to adulthood. This coop should work fine if you aim for the lower end of that range. It's also not at all unusual for people with chickens to have more than one coop, so if you’re ready to commit to a larger number of birds from the get-go, we suggest buying two of our pick, which together would still cost less than most of the high-end options I’ve seen. (Under the Precision brand, Petmate recently released a larger, more expensive version that seems to be made of the same materials, but the reviews aren't as good as those for our pick.)
The Petmate coop wasn't the cheapest coop I encountered, but spending more can absolutely buy you a better coop experience. If your budget is closer to $1,000, the popular Omlet Eglu Cube is a plastic option that's easier to clean than a wood coop (you just hose it down). Because it has wheels, you can move it around your yard, which might be helpful to avoid direct sun in summer or cold spots in winter. It also has thick walls to keep your chickens warm if you live in a very cold climate (chickens are typically fine in all but the coldest northern climates), and you can buy add-ons, such as an electronic door opener for mornings when you’re short on time. If your coop budget is even higher, $5,000 will have your birds relaxing in one of these palatial beauties from Roost & Root. The company's models are built at full standing height for most people, made with higher-quality wood than our pick, and equipped with features such as built-in food and water systems that control how much your chickens consume and allow you to fill them from outside the coop. You can also customize the Roost & Root coops with extra doors and insulation panels for winter. Most of these expensive extras, though, are designed to make humans’ lives easier—the chickens probably don't care all that much.
If you’re looking to either cut costs or end up with a very customized coop, another option is to build your own. If you’re unfamiliar with the needs of a coop, many online plans are available. If this is your first go-round with chickens, we recommend going with an established design, which should take into account various needs of the chicken that you may not fully understand; don't design it yourself.
Chickens aren't fussy about where they live; it really just needs to be clean, spacious, dry, and predator-proof.
Farmer Vincent Padgett Sr. bristled at the cost of coops when starting his flock. "I don't have a problem with it; I sold a lot of chicken coops," he said of his time working at Tractor Supply. But, he added, you could spend 10 bucks on the chickens and "then spend $300 on a chicken coop right after that just to give them a roof over their heads." So he started with a wheeled chicken tractor (called a tractor because the chickens turn over the earth underneath as they peck and scratch). Then he adapted a shed he already had, and when he needed to build more coops, he found free wood from neighbors who had leftovers from pandemic house projects. Belinda Jones of Morning Glory Homestead Farm has several different hand-built and adapted coops, including two sofa-sized military shipping crates her family got for free from a local base (her husband is retired Army). Chickens aren't fussy about where they live; it really just needs to be clean, spacious, dry, and predator-proof.
Even though your chickens won't start laying eggs for several months, the chicks themselves are a delight, and they’re so much fun to watch as they grow and change. Chicks can't move into your chicken coop until they grow feathers and become a little sturdier, around 4 to 8 weeks old. So when they first arrive, they’ll need to stay in your house or garage in a brooder box, which can be any old box where the babies can live with food, water, and heat. It should also have some kind of soft bedding on the bottom—I use pine shavings, senior staff writer Doug Mahoney uses newspaper or hay—to give your chicks a place to nestle and make sure the floor they walk on isn't too slippery.
A brooder doesn't have to be fancy or expensive; Doug recommends a cardboard box. But Wirecutter's favorite clear plastic storage bin, the Iris Weathertight Tote, makes a fantastic brooder for about half a dozen chicks. I’ve made two using the 74-quart size, which is big enough to house chicks, food, water, and a heat source for weeks until the birds are ready to move on. We cut a large hole in the lid, covered it with wire, and secured it in place with scrap wood to give the babies plenty of ventilation. The six latches keep the box tightly secured when our dog comes sniffing around, and the box is comfortable to carry and move. It's also a breeze to clean: Dump the dirty litter out of the box, and wipe it or hose it down.
After extensive testing, these seven storage bins, boxes, and totes are our favorites for keeping stuff clean and dry, inside or out.
Chicks are very, very susceptible to cold. Until they grow feathers, you must have a good heat source in their brooder box. "Remember, they’d normally be spending their day snuggled under Mom's warm underbelly," Doug said, "so it's up to you to re-create that for them."
Clamp lights with a heat bulb are the most affordable option, and it's what Doug uses, but I invested in a Brinsea EcoGlow 20 Safety 600 Brooder, and I’m glad I did. You have to adjust the temperature in your brooder to make sure you’re not overheating your chicks as they grow. (Doug uses an infrared thermometer to assess this and moves his lamp accordingly), but with the EcoGlow, I just raise the warming plate about an inch each week to accommodate the chicks’ rapidly increasing height. Our chicks have all loved nestling underneath it whenever they want to get warm. They also love sitting on top of the EcoGlow, which comes with a plastic cover that protects the unit from chick poop (you can buy replacements, and I recommend keeping some on hand).
As your chicks grow, they’ll spend less time under their heater as their protective feathers develop. As their brooder becomes a tight fit, you should bring them outside for at least a few minutes each day, or even an hour, to let them stretch. They will visibly outgrow your chick setup once they start growing feathers, and at that point they’ll spend most of their time trying to escape their brooder box. That's when it's time to fly to the coop.
Chicken keepers can be just as picky and passionate as any pet owner when it comes to what they feed their fowl, especially since the birds’ nutrition can directly impact the quality of the eggs they’ll lay. There's no shortage of options, including familiar brand names, local feed operations, organic, non-GMO, and homemade. I started my first flock on Purina Layena Crumbles Laying Hen Feed and then switched to a locally made feed because I felt better knowing exactly where my chickens’ food came from. After interviewing veterinarians Michelle Hawkins and Maurice Pitesky for this guide, though, I switched back to Purina. "It's so hard to make a well-balanced poultry diet," Pitesky told me. He recommended sticking with a brand that has done the research and has the resources to get chick nutrition just right. But I understand wanting to give your chickens a more artisanal diet, so if you choose that route, just be sure to read the labels carefully and watch your chickens for signs that their nutrition is off. There are plenty of supplements you can add in.
Most brands offer two levels of food for growing chickens—starter, for chicks, and layer, for when they reach egg-laying age. (Some brands include a level in the middle, called grower feed, for chickens that are around 10 to 18 weeks old, but as long as you’re paying attention to your chickens’ health, we don't think this type of food is necessary.) Both veterinarians I interviewed recommended a feed like Purina Start & Grow Medicated Chick Feed Crumbles because it's medicated against coccidiosis, a fatal intestinal parasite that spreads through chicken poop, which chickens might ingest. Having the medication in their feed means one less thing to worry about. (If your chick feed isn't medicated, you’ll need to add amprolium to their water for prevention.) Gail Damerow's Storey's Guide recommends adding vitamins and electrolytes to chicks’ water to "give chicks the best start in life" (page 310), especially if they’ve been shipped from a hatchery, as they might need an extra boost after traveling.
Whatever food route you take, hens and pullets need a special diet with tons of calcium when they’re ready to start laying eggs. Pitesky recommended switching birds to layer feed when they’re around 16 weeks old. Hawkins also recommended supplementing calcium for laying hens, with either oyster shell or calcium carbonate powder. Pitesky said large feed mills have nutritionists who calculate exactly the right types of calcium that hens can digest. But even if you use a balanced store-bought layer feed, Hawkins said, hens can always use more. The hens’ own egg shells are a huge source of calcium, and our family saves all of our used shells to crush and give back (video) to our chickens. Pitesky approved this practice, but Hawkins was more cautious. "The only downside of doing that is if one of your chickens has a disease," she said. You could spread it through your flock, so if you’re concerned, Hawkins said, save those shells for your garden.
Chickens enjoy treats, and senior staff writer Doug Mahoney told me that feeding the birds kitchen scraps can greatly reduce the food waste of a household. Hens also like mealworms, cracked corn, and scratch. Fresh Eggs Daily (a blog with Amazon affiliate links) has an extensive list of foods that chickens should avoid. Doug also noted that chickens love dairy. "One of the funniest things to watch is a bunch of chickens around a bowl of yogurt," he told me. "It's so ridiculous."
Note that most chickens have no teeth; they eat by pecking and then swallowing food and small bits of pebble on the ground to help mash it up, so when it comes to treats, avoid large, hard pieces of anything. Most chickens get the pebbles they need from dirt in the yard, but some chicken keepers give them a supply of grit to help with digestion; Pitesky didn't think this was necessary unless a chicken was spending its life inside a coop. Chickens tend to find a way to get what they need.
Just make sure not to overfeed your flock: Pitesky told me that treats should make up only about 10% of a hen's diet, while the other 90% should come from chicken feed to maintain a healthy weight. Damerow said, "An obese hen is unhealthy, doesn't lay well, and likely won't live long." McMurray's Hatchery lists the average adult weight for each breed it sells, but you can easily find the optimal weight for your individual breed online. Most people don't weigh their chickens regularly, though, so in her Storey's Guide (page 187), Damerow lists some obesity signs to watch out for: decreased egg laying, laying eggs at night instead of during the day, poor eggshell quality, frequent multiple yolks in a hen's eggs, and prolapse.
Chicken feed is typically sold in 50-pound bags, so you’ll need a place to keep it dry and secure from predators. It's convenient to store feed near the coop, and I use 60-pound Gamma2 Vittles Vault Stackable Pet Food Containers. The vaults are pest-proof but, in my experience, not watertight, so they’re best kept inside the coop.
Doug uses a galvanized trash can like this one, which holds up to three 50-pound bags of feed at a time. For critter protection, he threads a bungee cord through the handles and over the lid. If you need extreme protection from large predators, the Rubbermaid ActionPacker storage bin is our pick for the sturdiest storage container, and my 35-gallon size survived a bear attack last year. I recommend padlocking the bins for extra security.
To keep bags of chick feed dry and free of bugs, I used a 74-quart Iris Weathertight Tote indoors for storage while the babes were still in their brooder box.
A laying hen consumes about 2 pounds of food a week, so you should have a big, sturdy feeder like the 12-pound Little Giant Hanging Poultry Feeder for your adult flock and always make sure that it has feed available. Doug and I each use metal feeders with our chickens because chickens peck their food to eat it, and metal is harder-wearing. The handle at the top lets you hang the feeder off the ground. It's important to elevate your feeder away from roost bars and nest boxes so that mice and other vermin can't find a way in. Plus, chickens are messy eaters, and elevating their feeder helps prevent dirt and litter from getting kicked in, too.
For chicks, most feed stores and farms carry these Little Giant Feeder Bases and Little Giant Screw-On Poultry Jars, and they’re affordable enough that I like to keep several on hand in case I need to separate a sick chick or throw some feeders in the dishwasher. They’re easy to fill, designed to hold about a day or two's worth of food for maybe half a dozen chicks, and hard to tip over, so your chicks can't dump their food all over the floor of their brooder box (chicks love to make a mess). If you’re raising more than six to 10 babies, Doug recommends the Macgoal Flip-Top Poultry Feeder, which takes up less real estate in your brooder while giving all your birds a space to eat.
For chicks in a brooder box, we like to keep them hydrated with the 1-quart Little Giant Screw-On Poultry Waterer Base and the 1-quart Little Giant Screw-On Poultry Jar. Both are available at most feed stores. The jar works for either food or water and cleans up easily in the dishwasher. The tall shape of these waterers makes it hard for curious chicks to topple and spill their contents, and the base is shallow enough that chicks can safely drink without drowning themselves. (Sadly, this really can happen with larger pet bowls.) Chicks—and full-grown chickens—often kick shavings or straw into their waterers, so I raise ours on a bowl or a Tupperware container to keep it clean as long as possible.
Once your birds move to the coop, they’ll need a larger waterer. Doug likes the Farm Tuff Top Fill Poultry Fountain because, as its name indicates, you can fill it from the top, unlike many other waterers, which fill from the bottom and then need to be flipped over for use. ("That can get splashy," he said.) Plastic waterers are also easier to hose down and clean than metal ones, which can rust if you don't stay on top of cleaning them. Farm Tuff's 5-gallon size should keep a handful of birds in fresh water for a few days.
If you live in an area that freezes during the winter, it helps to have electricity in or near your coop. This allows you to use a water heater, which is a heated base for the waterer to sit on. If you don't have any nearby power, you’ll need multiple waterers so that you can constantly swap out the frozen one. A heater requires a metal waterer, so I use a Little Giant Double Wall Fount. For the base, I recommend the Farm Innovators HP-125 Heated Base: It has an inner thermostat that turns the heater on when temperatures fall below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, so it should draw power only when it's very cold.
Typically your pullets will start laying eggs around 5 months old, give or take a few weeks depending on the breed, and they can lay an egg almost every day, depending again on the breed as well as the season. This is when all of your hard work starts paying off. Here are some tips to help you gather.
Cleaning a coop is unpleasant but essential for keeping chickens healthy and your eggs clean. Mites and other parasites can fester in dirty feeders and waterers or in the poop-filled litter on a coop floor. Veterinarian Michelle Hawkins said chickens can also be exposed to E. coli or staph infections if they spend too much time walking around in their own excrement. And it's much cheaper to keep everything clean than it is to deal with problems after they arise—for a lice or mite infestation, for example, Hawkins said you need to scrub and disinfect the coop with expensive spinosad and add diatomaceous earth to their nest boxes, all of which adds up.
Hawkins recommended cleaning out a coop's nesting boxes at least once a week (this is what I do) and completely replacing the litter on the floor as often as you can. I’ve seen once a month as a guideline; farmer Vincent Padgett Sr. said he completely empties and replaces the litter in his coops every other day. I scoop out big litter clumps and add more pine shavings every few weeks, and I completely replace all the litter a few times a year. There is no one perfect way to clean a coop, so do what makes you most comfortable and keeps your birds healthy.
Cleaning a coop is physical labor with some health risks. You’re handling chicken manure and potentially exposing yourself and your tools to salmonella and all kinds of other bacteria, so you should keep a dedicated set of tools aside just for the coop so they don't contaminate anything else that you clean. Here's what we recommend:
For the biggest messes, these vacs can handle anything.
These masks work to block particulate inhalation in conditions ranging from wildfire smoke to dusty home projects.
Chickens are pretty low maintenance to raise, but there are a few important things to watch for and precautions to take, and it's wise to try to find a poultry vet in your area before getting any birds. Veterinarian Michelle Hawkins recommended the Association of Avian Veterinarians and its find-a-vet page to locate someone in your state.
If you don't live near an avian vet, or if bringing a chicken to the doctor isn't financially practical, Morning Glory Homestead's Belinda Jones suggested reaching out to your local extension office through the Cooperative Extension System, a program the United States Department of Agriculture has run for more than a century that partners with state universities to offer mostly free programming, grants, and other assistance to gardeners, farmers, and ranchers nationwide. You’re likely to find someone who can help you figure out your chicken-health problems. Run a Google search for "extension office" with your county name to find yours, or check this list of offices by state.
Hawkins noted that you can fix many minor scratches, scrapes, and ailments at home, but over the course of your birds’ lifetime, you may need to see a vet for conditions ranging from egg binding (when an egg becomes stuck in the hen) to an impacted crop (an undigested mass in your chicken's stomach) to ovarian cancer, which Hawkins said affects many older hens. These conditions come with marked behavior changes and physical symptoms such as bleeding, diarrhea, and major swelling. Regularly observing your birds will help you identify when something might be wrong, and Hawkins suggested picking up each chicken once a month to give them a quick examination for signs of trouble. McMurray Hatchery's Tom Watkins said that spending a little time every day with your birds will help clue you in to behavioral changes and will also make your chickens friendlier toward you.
Veterinarian Michelle Hawkins showed me an X-ray of a chicken that had swallowed a staple. "I love them to death," she said, "[but] they’re not always bright."
Predators are a significant health threat to chickens, so if you dream of free-ranging hens in your backyard, you need to consider curious dogs and carnivorous wildlife. "Everything under the sun likes chicken as much as we humans do," author Gail Damerow said. Predator-proofing your coop and run can help. Damerow told me that every opening, no matter how small, should be secured with steel hardware cloth fencing, and large enclosed runs should have chain-link fencing. Some coops are covered with chicken wire, but Jones told me it's not effective; she once had a hawk get its talons through a chicken-wire run to attack a hen. Our chicken coop pick from Petmate is well contained, with no visible openings I’ve found if it's on flat ground, and it is covered with hardware cloth.
Surprisingly, Hawkins treats a lot of backyard chickens for lead poisoning. Chickens love pecking at shiny things, including old nails and bits of metal that could be hiding around a yard. When we spoke, she showed me an X-ray of a chicken that had swallowed a staple. "I love them to death," Hawkins said, "[but] they’re not always bright." Ingested lead can transfer to the eggs that you and your family eat. If you’re worried about lead in your soil or yard debris, Hawkins suggested going over the chickens’ grazing area with a metal detector (you can rent one from Home Depot or Lowe's). You can also bring your chickens to the vet and ask them to test for lead poisoning, even if the birds are not showing any obvious symptoms.
Hawkins also said to take your chickens to the vet if you ever notice anything wrong with their feet; foot conditions are hard to bandage at home without causing your chicken more health problems, and ignoring foot wounds, discoloration, or swelling can severely affect your birds’ movements.
Create a chicken first aid kit at home with a few basic supplies for treating minor problems; Hawkins said wound care is what she gets asked about most day in and day out. Veterinarian Maurice Pitesky recommended sticking with soap and water for cleaning wounds, but Hawkins also suggested using sterile saline to clean. She also keeps a supply of medical-grade manuka honey in her field kit for treating wounds and strongly recommended keeping some at home. It's effective and safe for hens. Many honeys kill some bacteria because they contain hydrogen peroxide, but manuka honey, which comes from bees that feed on the nectar of manuka plants in New Zealand, seems to be particularly effective at disrupting and inhibiting bacteria and is used to treat wounds and burns. Hawkins also suggested keeping nonstick bandages and paper tape in your kit. Make sure it's nonstick, she said, because chicken skin is much thinner than human skin.
Because chickens are animals that people consume, medications such as antibiotics are heavily restricted to avoid transferring into the human food supply. You may see products like Dr. Naylor Blu-Kote and Vetericyn mentioned online, but the veterinarians I spoke to said that neither is approved for use on food animals. So be careful with what you use at home—the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank keeps a full list of FDA-approved medicines.
"They’re cute and awesome, and the eggs are great, but five years later, you’ve got nothing but a bunch of freeloaders on your hands." —Doug Mahoney, senior staff writer
Well-fed hens with space to roam can lay eggs for five years or more, but Watkins said they can live for 10. "I’ve always thought of this concept as the dirty little secret of the chicken world," Wirecutter senior staff writer Doug Mahoney said. "They’re cute and awesome, and the eggs are great, but five years later, you’ve got nothing but a bunch of freeloaders on your hands." If it turns out that you love raising chickens, you should introduce new chicks into your flock every two or three years to keep a steady supply of eggs as your birds age. The Old Farmer's Almanac has several suggestions for what to do with an older hen, from letting it catch bugs in your yard to eating it to humanely ending its life. Personally, as a woman approaching the end of my childbearing years, I heartily vote to let your backyard hens live out their twilight years tottering around your yard instead of culling them just because their eggs dried up.
Even if you request only female chicks from a hatchery or store, there's that 1-in-10 chance that a chick will wind up being a rooster. Farmer Vincent Padgett Sr. told me that out of his first batch of 12 chicks, five turned out to be roosters, so you should have a plan. Hens will lay eggs whether there's a fella in your flock or not, so a rooster isn't essential. Note that many communities don't allow roosters because their crowing is a nuisance to neighbors. Padgett was able to trade with neighboring farms for hens, and the local farm where I bought most of my chicks will take back any surprise boys. When I asked McMurray Hatchery's Tom Watkins what to do with an unwanted rooster, he said, "You can eat it." This option was a common response, something I heard from almost every source I asked.
You might not want a rooster around for reasons other than annoyed neighbors. They can be aggressive, which is a problem if you have young kids or let your chickens free-range in the yard; roosters will chase and attack you, and they have sharp spurs on their feet. And they can be brutal on hens while mating, especially if there aren't enough birds. (The amount of hens one should have per rooster varies by breed. Cackle Hatchery provides these ratios in the "breed facts" section of its extensive list of birds.)
Roosters are just following their nature, though, and author Gail Damerow has some tips for taming feisty ones. If you live in an area that allows them, you might want to keep one around. They’re fiercely protective of the hens in their flock and will fight off all kinds of predators and threats, including you. My rooster, Fudge, is gorgeous and probably my favorite chicken, but he's terrifying if he thinks I’m bothering the hens. Veterinarian Maurice Pitesky noted, "Having one rooster per handful of hens—up to five or 10 hens—actually is pretty good. It kind of keeps everyone in line."
You don't need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs; they will naturally lay unfertilized eggs without a male around. Most of the eggs you buy from the supermarket, for example, are unfertilized. If you do keep a rooster, most of the eggs your hens lay will be fertilized, but you can still eat them if you collect them regularly—an embryo will not grow in an egg until a hen sits on it for a few weeks to hatch a chick. There are minor visible differences between fertilized and unfertilized eggs, but both are safe to eat, and they taste the same. (And speaking of food, you can feed a rooster all the same stuff you feed your hens.)
If you definitely want a rooster but don't end up with any in your flock of chicks, The Humane Society recommends adopting because unwanted roosters are often abandoned. But Pitesky advised caution: "You just don't know what conditions [they] were raised under." In adopting, there's potential to introduce diseases or bad hygiene practices from another farm into your flock, so be sure to inspect the rooster carefully for mites or lice before bringing it home, and consider taking it to a vet for a more thorough exam.
I ordered some new chicks that will arrive later in 2023, and I plan to house some of them in the Producer's Pride Sentinel Chicken Coop. At $400, the well-reviewed Sentinel is closer in cost to what our top pick originally sold for, with a claimed capacity for six chickens. It's only 4-feet-tall, though, so unlike our pick, you can't step inside of it to clean it or tend to the chickens. I’ll update this guide once our newest hens get settled in.
In addition to Gail Damerow's Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, here are a few other books to consider:
We also recommend the following online resources:
Belinda Jones, co-owner of Morning Glory Homestead Farm, phone interview, March 24, 2021
Vincent Padgett Sr., urban homesteader and former Tractor Supply assistant manager, phone interview, March 24, 2021
Michelle Hawkins, VMD, board-certified avian specialist and professor of companion avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery at University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Zoom interview, March 15, 2021
Ginger Stevenson, marketing representative at Murray McMurray Hatchery, email interview, February 19, 2021
Tom Watkins, co-owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery, phone interview, February 16, 2021
Gail Damerow, author of Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, email interview, February 15, 2021
Maurice Pitesky, DVM, associate specialist at University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, phone interview, February 11, 2021
Jackie Reeve is a senior staff writer covering bedding, organization, and home goods at Wirecutter since 2015. Previously she was a school librarian, and she's been a quilter for about 15 years. Her quilt patterns and her other written work have appeared in various publications. She moderates Wirecutter's staff book club and makes her bed every morning.
by Harry Sawyers
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No matter where you live or how many kitchen scraps you amass, you can compost if you want to. We compiled tips from five compost experts to get you started.Frequency: Don't wash them: Carrying eggs: A hen might not give up the goods: Missing eggs: Extra eggs: Not enough eggs A good shovel: Spading fork: Shop vac: Work gloves: Kids’ gloves: Face mask: